Interview: Sebastián Lelio on the Making of Disobedience

Leilo discusses finding the balance between his characters’ respective narrative arcs.

Interview: Sebastián Lelio on the Making of Disobedience
Photo: Mongrel Media

If Sebastián Lelio were looking to establish himself as a globally known master filmmaker, he could not have scripted 2018 any better for himself. The year began with his film A Fantastic Woman winning the Academy Award for best foreign language film (he accepted the award, though technically the statue goes to the country of Chile). And he’ll almost certainly be back on the festival circuit this fall with the American remake of his 2013 film Gloria, with Julianne Moore in the lead. But now, barely a month after beaming into tens of millions of households at the Oscars, the Argentinian-born Chilean director already has another film arriving in theaters, Disobedience.

The film, which maintained a quiet profile after its Toronto premiere last year so as to avoid diverting attention away from A Fantastic Woman, is another magisterial exploration of identity and sacrifice. Immersing us in the minutia of London’s restrictive Orthodox Jewish community, Lelio opens a window on the pained interior lives of Ronit (Rachel Weisz), who left this community many years ago; Esti (Rachel McAdams), who struggles to follow her lover’s lead; and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who seeks, with misgivings, to take over as head of the community after the death of Ronit’s father.

In a phone conversation prior to the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere, Leilo discussed how he immersed himself in the milieu of the film and found the appropriate balance between his characters’ respective narrative arcs.

Your last three films have focused on women who find themselves at odds with society, either because of their age, their gender identification, or their sexual orientation. Is this a through line that you’ve consciously drawn?

It’s been a very organic process. I didn’t make the decision three films ago to make three films centered around women who are somehow on the fringes of society, or narratives that put them at the center. I just felt very moved and attracted by the idea of creating these portraits. Maybe like cubist portraits where I can see them from every possible angle and still go through an entire emotional spectrum, falling and then standing up again. There’s something about that that really moves me, and I’m just following that emotion.

I spoke with Daniela Vega earlier this year when A Fantastic Woman came out, and she talked all about how you collaborated with her to learn about the life of trans women in Chile. Did you undertake a similar process with anyone to understand the Orthodox Jewish community in London?

Oh yes. It wasn’t dissimilar in that sense. For the writing process, we had probably up to four consultants. And Naomi Alderman, who wrote the book on which the film is based while she was a part of the community in 2006, was always there to explain the nuances of what being an Orthodox Jewish woman means. And then for the pre-production process and the filming process, the amount of consultants grew and increased up to probably 12. I was very obsessed with getting the cultural nuances right. I wanted to capture the texture of that community, and then I really wanted to forget about it and focus on what I care about the most, which is the three main characters.

Ronit is probably the main character of the film, but it seems like all three of the lead performers could be considered the protagonist in a way. How did you go about striking a balance between their different journeys?

Well, it wasn’t easy because it’s a baroque structure, like when you listen to Bach. In this case, there are three narrative lines. It starts with Ronit, then Dovid comes in, and then Esti. Then the three of them are mixing, sometimes coexisting, separating again, mixing again. It’s like when you listen to a Goldberg variation. It wasn’t easy, but it was fascinating to try and find the balance between the three of them and give them enough space so that the spectator can see them facing the challenges and evolutionary crossroads that they’re going through. Because the three of them are facing their own dilemma. It was a fun and interesting process to find the final architecture of the story. If you pay attention to it, the camera is always framing at least one of them. The camera never observes anything else that’s apart from them. Even when we see a reverse angle in a conversation that’s pointing at some other character, it’s through the body of one of the three main characters.

The film casts a critical eye toward the forces that inhibit personal expression. How do you determine who’s worthy of critique, the institutions or the people, without turning either into obvious villains or antagonists?

I don’t believe there’s any perfect human society. It’s a personal quest to not fall into the trap of making a community an antagonistic force, but for that force to exist within the characters themselves. They’re the main obstacle for them to get to the next level. The community, of course, plays a big role. But it’s really about the tension between the interests of the group and individual freedom. When it comes to that, I’m closer to the individual battle, if you want.

Disobedience was Rachel Weisz’s baby in many ways, a project she’s been attached to and tried to get made for over a decade. Should we look for her authorship of the film anywhere other than in her performance as Ronit?

I think it’s been very special and an honor to be invited to direct the film because I always felt it was very personal for Rachel. She grew up not far away from the neighborhood, and it’s the world of her childhood even though she didn’t grow up in that community. There are certain things that are personal to her. She embraced the challenge passionately because of that. But at the same time, she was generous enough to let me find my own perspective and angle and solution. Then she really was an actress during the shooting and really generous, really trusted me. I’m really grateful for that.

Is there any particular Rachel McAdams performance that made you realize she was the right choice to play Esti?

Well, I’ve always considered her to be a great actress. She’s the kind of actress that you can’t take your eyes off of, and you’re always on her side. I thought it was going to be great for the character. But I remember watching her in To the Wonder, the Terrence Malick film, and being blown away by her cinematic presence. Almost like, this is a huge actress. I thought the combination of Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz was going to be electric and explosive and so attractive. So I was so happy when she accepted the part.

There’s a moment after the sex scene when Ronit takes Esti’s picture, and it made real the concept of the female gaze between the two women. Was that moment already in the novel or something you added in as a commentary?

That’s something that wasn’t in the novel, that was born during the writing process when we had to decide what was Ronit’s profession. It was different than the one described in the novel. I wanted to make Ronit a photographer because in the Orthodox culture there’s a certain rejection toward images and icons, and I found that to be an interesting paradox.

Was there anything you learned about working in the English language that you brought to the Americanized remake of your film Gloria?

Well, that at the end of the day, despite the amount of trucks that are parked outside the set, it’s the same thing. You have a camera, the team, the actors in front of the camera and a few hours to get the scene right. That felt like home.

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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